Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pressureless Playoffs

Nine years.

2004.

Lots of things have changed since then, but this isn't about that.

This is about relaxation. This is about relief. This is about my Leafs being back in the playoffs.

They clinched on Saturday. Their seed is still up for debate, but 5th place vs the Habs looks likely. Which, in reality, is about the most ideal matchup possible this year. Oh, the Leafs and Canadiens, one of the greatest rivalries in all sports, haven't met in the playoffs since 1979.

Even though it's been nine years since the Buds were last wearing skates in May, and 34 years since they saw the bleu, blanc, et rouge across the ice from them, there's no pressure here.

Because let's be honest -- they shouldn't even be here.

They got outshot 50-22 in their last game, and won 4-1.

They're 25-15-5, with no shootout wins. They were outshot in TWENTY of those 25 wins. That's obviously 1st in the league for that stat. They've been outshot 1461-1202, a 259 shot differential. The ONLY team with a worse diff is Edmonton, and they're in the shitter. It's been more than a decade since a team saw the playoffs with a ratio this bad.

They also lead the league in blocked shots. So in the ol' pucks directed towards the net concept - they're terrible.

Penalties - they're 2nd in penalty minutes, and 1st in majors. This is a team that likes to beat your team up. They get away with it because they also happen to have the 3rd best penalty killing unit in the league. Oh, and they also have more hits than anyone else by a mile. Truculence and aggression and all that.

Shooting percentages are out of whack. Kadri is shooting 18.6% and leads the team in goals. Bozak is shooting 19.7%, JVR 13.3%, Lupul, who everyone in Toronto now agrees is the best player on the ice when he's healthy, is shooting 27%! For perspective, Crosby's shooting percentage is 12.1%, Stamkos is 19%, and Ovechkin is 14.2%.

In fact, all the fancy stats say the Leafs are in an unsustainable season. Good thing it was only 48 games then. The question becomes - can they carry this unexpected success into the playoffs?

Maybe.

Lupul is back (again, again), and one would think relatively fresh with only 13 games played this season. He hasn't been stellar in his 3 games post-concussion, but he does have two goals in there. One from a hard drive to the net, the next from a stolen puck and mini break. Kadri has been in a slump since March, but got a flukey goal on Saturday, which may get the monkey off his tiny baby-faced back. Kessel has been quietly been playing the best overall hockey of his career all season, despite whining from the fans who used to bitch about how one-dimensional he was. Phaneuf has played his best season as a Leaf, showing maturity and eating up all kinds of minutes.

Then there's Reimer. Since the trade deadline he's basically said "Roberto Who? Mikka what?" with his play. 2.12 GAA, .939 SV % in April. The guy is standing on his head, and the players around his net are helping him look even better. Since he re-learned how to catch, he's been nearly unbeatable. A hot goalie heading into the playoffs? Leading a team with 4 legitimate offensive threats across two lines, and a whole team willing to block your shots and crush you into the boards? Yah, I'll take that. Fancy stats be damned.

The playoffs are a different brand of hockey. They're tougher. There's no quarter given. Every game is a must-win. The pressure starts at 10 and ratchets up with each round. And the reality is - Leafs fans are just happy to be there. Everything else is gravy right now. The team knows it. They're loose. They're happy. They have a coach that will whip them into the right mindset if they falter. This could be fun.

Besides, if my guys somehow, against all reason, miraculously go all the way? It won't count to anyone outside of Toronto, after all, it wasn't a real season.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Shut Up About the Goaltending

Since last season (and honestly, for a number of seasons), the cry has been that the Leafs need a bona fide goalie. Montreal has Price, Calgary has Kiprusoff, New Jersey has Brodeur, Pittsburgh has Fleury, etc.. The Leafs have Reimer and Scrivens. We haven't had a legit #1 since Belfour at the tail end of his career.

Reimer raised eyebrows a couple seasons back, covering when Gustavsson and Giguere were having issues. He did so well, he became the starter to finish the season in an attempt to get the Leafs into the playoffs. He was the #1 goalie last season, started strong, and then went down with "concussion-like symptoms". He returned before he was 100% and didn't play the same. Throw in some serious head-fucking by goaltending "guru" Fran├žois Allaire, who only knows one style, and "Optimus Reim" was looking like he was about done.

Allaire's gone. Reimer is healthy. I had faith that he could return to form. I seemed to be alone.

Calls for Luongo from Vancouver were loud. Kadri and Bozak for Roberto! Gardiner can be traded! Kessel for Bobby Lu! Give me a break.

But still, the fans and the papers go on and on about Toronto's need for an established goaltender. Apparently they're all brain dead.

Alright, maybe a veteran PRESENCE would help. Like Giguere was, or Cujo's brief second stint. Someone who can tell the younger guys how to prepare, how to deal with the day to day. But you know what? You don't need someone who dresses every night for that. You need a guy on staff, not the roster. See if you can grab Joseph from his Kingston Frontenacs goaltending coach gig. Hell, some nights even bringing Johnny Bower into the locker room for a pep talk would probably be enough.

Because Reimer and Scrivens are doing just fine.

Stats:

Reimer: 20 Starts, 2.52 GAA, .920 SV %, 13-4-4
Scrivens: 16 Starts,  2.59 GAA, .918 SV %, 7-8-0
Average: 2.56 GAA, .919 SV%

Among goalies who have started 16 or more games: Reimer is 19th, and Scrivens 21st out of 33. Not great, but not terrible. Especially if you keep in mind that the Leafs score 3.11 goals per game (4th in the league behind Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Tampa), that's over half a goal/game of room to play with.

Oh, but the Leafs give up a lot of shots. A ton. 31.8/game - 4th worst in the league. So those save percentages? Reimer is 9th, Scrivens 13th. Again - goalies with 16 or more starts.

Wins are relatively easy to rank. Toronto is 7th overall in the league in wins.

But wins/start? Reimer is 6th. Scrivens? A far less impressive 26th.

So, with all that info out there. The question becomes - who the hell are people looking for?

Obviously the franchise goalies aren't going anywhere, so the Prices and Fleurys can be ignored. Also, any team in the playoff hunt isn't going to part with their starter, so guys like Backstrom or Rask are going anywhere. Also forget anyone in the East helping the Leafs. So Ottawa ain't sending Bishop our way.

So who does that leave? Let's go with stats.

GAA, better than Reimer and theoretically possible: Roberto Luongo? Ray Emery? One of Anaheim's tenders? Yah... out of those, Luongo is the only one actually available.

Better than Reimer in SV %? Hrmm... nobody. Not a one. Anderson is the only goaltender who would be worth the upgrade (.952), and he's not moving from the Senators, plus he's been injured for half the season. Seriously, even Crawford has only a .005 better %. It's a tight group at the top. Oh, and Luongo? .904 - 28th.

How about wins/games started?  Unless Chicago's got Emery on the block or Anaheim wants to give up Fasth for a 3rd round pick. Not much out there. Luongo? Has won exactly half his starts vs Reimer's 65%, which as stated, is 6th in the league.

Actually, Emery keeps popping up. He's about the same at SV% as Reimer, and beats him in the other two categories I'm looking at. Except he was a head case in Ottawa, bounced around after that, is having a career season, and plays for CHICAGO. All strikes against his being worth anything away from that team. Besides, the Hawks aren't sending him anywhere.

Oh, one other - Tomas Vokoun. Better in every category (2.33, .922, 77%), and he's Fleury's backup. Consistent SV%, 2nd best year for his GAA. Oh, but also 36 years old. Of course, he's not an every day guy, is in the same conference, and is exactly the kind of backup you want for a playoff run. So again, not going anywhere, and not worth particularly much.

So that's a long way of saying there's not much out there. Bernier from the Kings? Sure, except how is he a more proven variable than Reimer? 9 starts this season? His numbers are generally better, and he's definitely an upgrade over Scrivens, but he's not a proven starter, and stepping into Toronto for a hockey player is like playing for the Yankees in baseball - you are in a media maelstrom. Does LA's backup have the mental toughness for that? Do you take that chance?

Reality is harsh. Toronto's goaltending may not be top-tier. For as good a tandem as they are, our guys don't offer the consistent backbone of a Fleury or Price or Rask or Crawford or Miller. But there also aren't any of those guys out there to be had for Toronto. Sure, there are intangibles in a bona fide starter that don't show up on stats sheets, but with 12 games left in the season? A playoff spot FINALLY looking realistic? Frankly, no change between the pipes is worth it right now. We can revisit in the off-season.